Mention beef brisket in Hong Kong and the name Kau Kee will inevitably crop up. The decades-old shop, which seats only about 20, is known almost as much for its brisket as for its abrupt, unsmiling service. Diners, both locals and tourists, come in droves, queuing up even before the shutters open around 12.30pm, to savour a bowl of the beef brisket with or without noodles, before leaving as soon as they've finished to make way for the next customer.
Pun Kwok-hing, whose father, Pun Sui-yuen founded Kau Kee, might be the source of fear.
Despite his casual gait and rosy cheeks, approachability is not one of his strong suits. "I might have to start charging everyone [who comes for an interview]," he says. "It's not like I asked you all to come." But all this just seems to be his way of guarding what his father created, a speciality that he's proud to serve. Pun abolished the establishment's traditional 7.30pm break, when the restaurant would close for an hour so that he and his staff could have dinner, because of the responsibility he feels towards people who "come from all over the world to try our food, only to find us closed. And the staff can go home earlier.
"I don't know when Kau Kee first opened," Pun says. "We've been selling beef brisket since I was born, but my father said he started by selling congee at a dai pai dong on Gage Street. There was too much competition in congee, so he switched to beef brisket. Back then, all beef brisket was cooked with chu hau sauce so my father had to do something different. He invented our clear soup."
Like many older establishments, Kau Kee has only been able to weather storms because they have full ownership of their shop. "The year of the Beijing Olympics, it was snowing so hard in China that they stopped our beef delivery," he recalls. "We just had to close when we sold out."
According to Pun, Kau Kee has always offered brisket in two ways - in clear soup or with curry sauce. Both recipes are closely guarded secrets that only he knows; all he would say about the soup is that "it's all herbs, no spices", and that it changes seasonally or when he deems it necessary. "Tastes change and we have to keep up. You have to keep people happy," he says.
That's true of his staff, too. He points to a middle-aged cook. "He's been here since he was a kid." But he is quick to add, "We'll never be friends … a boss and his employees can't be on friendly terms, but if you're good to people, they'll be good back."
Kau Kee, 21 Gough Street, Central. Monday-Saturday 12.30pm-10.30pm